Are we in Tel Aviv or Pyongyang?

Illegal police use of NSO spyware, if true, would constitute the gravest assault on civil liberties and fundamental human rights in Israel's modern history.

 WHEN TOO much unchecked power is vested in the hands of faceless bureaucrats, even the strongest of democracies can slide toward oblivion. (photo credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)
WHEN TOO much unchecked power is vested in the hands of faceless bureaucrats, even the strongest of democracies can slide toward oblivion.
(photo credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)

This past Monday, while the Home Front Command was conducting a nationwide earthquake drill, a true tectonic catastrophe, albeit of a different sort, struck Israel and shook it to its very core.

In a front-page report, the Calcalist newspaper dropped a bombshell regarding how the police have allegedly been using the Pegasus spyware system for years to illicitly monitor senior government officials, mayors, journalists, community activists and others.

Dispensing with pesky matters such as judicial oversight, the presumption of innocence and basic institutional integrity, the men in blue reportedly hacked into people’s cellphones without authorization and copied their most sensitive data.

In many cases, the targets of this systematic cyber theft were not even suspected of having committed a crime.

They included the former director-general of the Justice Ministry Emi Palmor, who had been critical of the police for their treatment of Ethiopian Israelis, as well as members of the community itself who had taken to the streets to protest police violence.

 HUNGARIANS PROTEST the government’s use of Pegasus spyware to monitor journalists, opposition leaders and activists, in Budapest, July 26. (credit: Marton Monus/Reuters) HUNGARIANS PROTEST the government’s use of Pegasus spyware to monitor journalists, opposition leaders and activists, in Budapest, July 26. (credit: Marton Monus/Reuters)

Activists for rights for the disabled, Jews living in Judea and Samaria, the heads of major corporations as well as members of former prime minister and opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu’s family were all being spied upon.

Dozens of citizens, and perhaps many others, were treated more like residents of Pyongyang than Tel Aviv.

According to Calcalist, this abuse of power was not a flippant error or a technical mishap. It went on over the course of years and it is unclear when it began or even if it has ended.

If true, this would constitute the gravest assault on civil liberties and fundamental human rights in the country’s modern history.

Instead of protecting the populace, the police employed tactics taken straight out of a KGB playbook, abusing their power, invading the lives of the innocent, and violating the trust and confidence of citizens.

Needless to say, every man-hour that was spent illicitly eavesdropping on civilians is an hour that was not spent pursuing crime families and gangs that have been wreaking havoc in various parts of the country. So not only were the police doing things they most certainly should not have been doing but at the same time, they were failing to do what was expected of them.

Equally shocking was the brazenness with which police spokesmen lied to the public in recent weeks since the initial allegations concerning their warrant-less hacking were first aired.

Night after night, men in uniform sporting shiny medals appeared in television studios, firmly and repeatedly insisting that no such illicit behavior had taken place. Those false assertions are no less a stain on the police than the behavior that they sought to conceal.

There will almost certainly be a state commission of inquiry established with much fanfare, with parades of witnesses and perhaps even a few whistle-blowers to add to the drama. Many hands will be wrung and eyebrows will furrow, and various new laws and regulations will be formulated to rein in the abuses.

But none of this will truly get to the heart of the problem, which is far deeper and more embedded in our political culture. And that is our love affair with big, intrusive and overbearing government.

Time and again, we seem to want to believe with all of our might that fine-tuning the system, rather than reshaping it and cutting it down to size is all that is needed to fix it.

But this approach ignores a basic truth about human nature.

In a lecture about the American Constitution in April 1991 at Brown University, then-US Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia pointed out that a bill of rights has value only if the governmental edifice that it establishes creates, “a structure likely to preserve, against the ineradicable human lust for power, the liberties that the bill of rights expresses.”

Put more forcefully, Scalia noted, “If the people value those liberties, the proper constitutional structure will likely result in their preservation even in the absence of a bill of rights; and where that structure does not exist, the mere recitation of the liberties will certainly not preserve them.”

The current architecture of Israel’s democracy is clearly ill-suited to fending off “the ineradicable human lust for power,” as nearly every branch of government has demonstrated in recent years, be it the executive, the legislative or the judiciary.

The revelations regarding the police and their establishment of a mini-surveillance state within the state, possibly with the knowledge of other bodies, represent the most dramatic evidence yet that our system and size of government have spun completely out of control.

It is a simple fact that big, bloated bureaucracies inevitably devolve into bullies, whether to preserve their power or justify their continued expansion. If we want to restore some sanity to our system, changing the rules will not suffice.

In his farewell address to the nation on January 11, 1989, then-US President Ronald Reagan parted ways with the American people with the following words, “I hope we once again have reminded people that man is not free unless government is limited. There’s a clear cause and effect here that is as neat and predictable as a law of physics: As government expands, liberty contracts.”

The lesson to be learned from the police debacle is as simple as it is straightforward and it is one that we would do well to take to heart: when too much unchecked power is vested in the hands of faceless bureaucrats, even the strongest of democracies can slide toward oblivion. 

The writer served as deputy communications director under former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu during his first term of office.